Sparrow in the coal mine

I’m as guilty as the next guy for grumbling when I heard that Sparrow — the excellent OS X and iOS mail client — was just end-of-lifed thanks to Google purchasing it and the team that developed it.

I don’t begrudge the team their success; my complaint is simply that a great thing that I get to use every day is now going to start bit-rotting and will, eventually, no longer work.

By then, I hope, GMail will have become Sparrowfied and this won’t matter. But that part of me that loves supporting indie developers won’t get its itch scratched when I’m using my free and vastly improved Google webmail.

What’s really interesting about this, though, is that it’s looking more and more that the developers really didn’t have much choice, as this seemingly successful app family may have actually been unsustainable as a business.

David Barnard, developer of another essential iOS app — Launch Center Pro — used his experience and numbers selling Launch Center Pro to make an educated guess as to whether Sparrow was making enough money to survive. His analysis is sobering: making money in the low-priced app business is neither easy nor automatic:

We’ve all read stories about and been enthralled by the idea of App Store millionaires. As the story goes… individual app developers are making money hand over fist in the App Store! And if you can just come up with a great app idea, you’ll be a millionaire in no time!

That may seem a bit hyperbolic, but that is honestly the way the public perceives success in the App Store…

After 4 years in the racket, this is my best advice for making millions in the App Store: build a game, a gimmick, or an app that has some sort of revenue outside a one-time purchase. Oh, and if it’s a game, make it “free-to-play”. You might be able to build a sustainable business selling useful apps, and carve out a decent living for yourself, but it’s almost impossible to make millions.

Unless Google buys your company.

For anyone who enjoys the richness and relative affordability of the current OS X and iOS app universe, David’s post should give pause.